Sunday, January 24, 2010

Bukit Lawang, Indonesia

We made it to Medan from Banda Aceh without any problems. It was a fairly smooth ride. I wish all my bus rides in Indonesia went as well as this one did. We found out that the bus station we were dropped off at didn't provide connecting buses to Bukit Lawang, but that there was another bus station, a few miles away, that could take us there. Why our bus couldn't have just dropped us off at the other station is beyond me? Just like every other city in southeast Asia, I guess, it is a way to create local jobs. Of course, the taxi services knew this, and were all waiting for us outside of our bus when we exited.

As I was being surrounded by annoying men trying to get us to take a taxi, I noticed Scott, an English fellow that I'd met in Pulau Weh, in the bus terminal walking in the opposite direction.

"Scott!" I yelled loudly, trying to get his attention. He kept walking.

"Hey, Scott! Scott!" I repeated. He finally turned around after calling his name ten times.

He approached me and Ian with a surprised look on his face. "Hey, fellas," said Scott, "I thought to myself, surely that couldn't be someone calling my name." We all laughed, as it was funny running into each other here after spending nearly a week together at Pulau Weh. "Have you seen Kirsty?" Scott asked. "She's right over there; I'll get here and come right back."

Scott and Kirsty were traveling to Bukit Lawang as well, so we all decided to walk together to the other bus station. First we needed to find an Internet cafe, as Ian lost his cell phone and needed to notify his cell phone provider. And not too long afterwards, Scott and Kirsty realized that they needed to find an ATM before they left for Bukit Lawang. So we would briefly split up before meeting up again at the bus station, later. However, Ian and I had been unsuccessful finding an Internet cafe and Ian really didn't want to go to Bukit Lawang until he found one. So he decided to search again on his bicycle, taking a later bus to Bukit Lawang. And off Scott, Kirsty and I went--so we thought. The bus didn't go but two blocks before stopping again. You see, in Indonesia, the buses don't leave until they are filled to capacity. It doesn't matter what time your bus is suppose to depart, if the bus isn't full, don't plan on leaving any time soon. It doesn't matter how seasoned of a traveler you are, sitting in a bus with no air con, under a blazing sun when you were supposed to have left over an hour ago, will make anyone snap. Oh, and I forgot the blaring karaoke Indonesian music that was being played, which, Scott finally had enough of, and walked to the front of the bus and turned the music down. Nice.

In the bus on the way there I met--just like my guidebook said I would--a guide. He told me he would bring me to the cheapest hotel. So after we made it to Bukit Lawang, I parted ways with Scott and Kirsty and had the guide show me to the hotel. What I liked about the guide was that he didn't pressure me to make any decisions. I'm glad I went with him too because he brought me to the cheapest hotel, called Bukit Lawang Indah. It had a nice open restaurant with a view of the village across the river. After I settled in I scheduled a one day jungle trek with the guide, Sinar Sipayung, for Ian and I the next morning. I was anxious to see some orangutans after failing to see any in Ketambe.

Orangutans can only be found now in Sumatra and Borneo. The orangutans existence continues to be threatened due to logging and agriculture, which reduces their habitat. Bukit Lawang has established a rehabilitation center for orangutans to assist them rejust to the wild. And after they have trained the orangutans how to survive in the wild, they let them back into the jungle. So when you go on a jungle trek in Bukit Lawang there's a good chance that you will see orangutans; however, it's more likely you'll see the semi-wild orangutans that have been released back into the wild after rehabilitation.

We left at 8 a.m. for the jungle trek. Our guide, Sinar, also had an assistant guide come with us. His job was mainly to carry our lunch, which Ian and I thought was a bit odd. However, we would soon find out why our guide didn't want to carry the food. Within thirty minutes of entering the jungle we encountered our first orangutan. It was a semi-wild one, who loved attention. It slowly swung its way down from the trees towards us. It's amazing how strong orangutans are. They move so effortlessly, while hanging onto tree branches with one arm. The orangutan, now close to us, hung in the trees allowing Ian and I to take some close photographs of it.

We probably saw about four or five orangutans during the jungle trek. One of which, however, gave all of us a bit of a scare. Sinar told us about a particular orangutan whose known to be a bit vicious, named Mina. Apparently Mina has a nose for smelling food, i.e. the lunch that guides carry in their backpacks. And what Mina wants, she gets. After our guide briefed us about Mina, Ian and I weren't too enthused about the possibility of seeing her.

"Wouldn't it be sensible to eat our food now, no?" Ian commented.

"Don't worry. Don' worry," our guide said.

"Well, I reckon it would be more practical to eat now, so if we did see Mina, we wouldn't have to worry about her wanting our food," Ian responded.

"You're fine, you're fine. Don't worry, don't worry," our guide repeated.

"No? Okaaay," Ian said with a skeptical tone in his voice.

And as luck had it, we saw Mina within the next hour. "Oh, there is Mina," our guide said, "You very lucky!" As one could imagine, I didn't feel too lucky. Mina was further down the trail, high in the trees.

"Let's go! Let's go!" our guide said enthusiastically. Sometimes I felt that our guide was more excited to see the orangutans than we were.

"It would be quite dangerous to approach Mina any closer, no?" Ian said, with a cautious tone in his voice again, looking at me as if to say, 'this is crazy, right?'

"Not dangerous. Let's go! Let's go!" said our guide, giggling.

And as we walked further down the trail Mina began to approach us, descending from the trees. Nervous, I quickly turned around and began walking in the opposite direction.

"Wait, wait!" our guide shouted to me, as Mina stopped her descent. "Come back, come back!"

Observing that Mina had indeed in fact stopped her descent, I slowly crept my way back to our guide, who, at this point, was standing directly underneath the ape. Mina was hanging above us in the trees, no higher than 15 feet. And she was a large ape, too. She also had a minny Mina clinging on to her. Apparently, Mina had recently became a mother. After taking some photos, we decided to continue on with the trek. Bye-bye, Mina--so we thought.

After about 5 minutes we decided to take a break. However, we noticed that Mina was still in sight, heading in our direction. Earlier in the day, our guide told us how it is very dangerous if an orangutan descends from the trees to the ground. This, obviously, was in the back of my mind as Mina slowly swung in our direction, getting closer...and closer...and closer...and...

That's right, Mina touched the ground.

"Okay, go now," said Sinar. Even our guides were looking a bit nervous now.

Zoom! And I was outta there! Our guide, Sinar, stayed back to distract her as we all bolted further up the trail. After we stopped to catch our breath for a second, I noticed that Sinar was still MIA Ian and the other guide continued trekking as I waited for Sinar. Within a minute, Sinar came around the corner moving rather quickly, and being tailed by Mina! It was a horrifying moment for me to see Mina on all fours chasing Sinar.

"Oh, shit!" I yelled, and took off--again.

It didn't take me long to catch up with Ian and the other guide. "She's coming!" I hollered, "She's still coming!" Ian and the guide's eyes lid up, and quickly scrambled to start climbing. At this juncture, our trail had turned into a steep incline, so we weren't exactly trekking anymore--it was a bit more like rock climbing.

Once we made it to the top, where the trail was level again, we were greeted by another orangutan who was near the ground! There were some other trekkers standing by taking pictures, too. After I told them what had just happened, Mina became visible again, swinging up the trees in our direction.

"She's baaack," I said, as everyone began to slowly retreat. Once Mina touched the ground again, the other orangutan headed for the hills, as she didn't want anything to do with Mina either.

And nor did I.

Zoom! I began sprinting down the trail again. This was getting to be a bit absurd. I proceeded to yell to our guides to follow suit. For some reason, however, they kept staying behind, as if they were trying to convey a message to Mina that we meant her no harm. All Mina cared about was the food, obviously! Duh! After a short lasted standoff with Mina, the guides retreated and joined me and Ian.

After we felt that we lost her, we made it to the river where we ate our lunch--finally. It was a quite scenic area too, with lush vegetation. There was also a pleasant little waterfall which I happily used to rinse off. After our delicious lunch, which consisted of egg, fried rice, and loads of fresh fruit we continued our trek. We would make it back to our hotel in one piece, thankfully. Just remember: if you decide to trek the jungle in Bukit Lawang and come across Mina, I'd suggest you do what the other orangutan did on our trek and run for the hills. Do what the locals do, right?

On New Years Eve, Ian and I met up with Scott and Kirsty. After a late dinner together we went back to their bungalow, where I enjoyed good conversations, music, and alcohol--all while swinging from their hammock on the balcony. Real nice. Afterwards we went to a New Years Eve party that came highly recommended. When we first arrived there wasn't many people there, but soon after, it was quickly flooded with Indonesians.

If anyone would have told me last year that I would be spending the last seconds of 2009 in a jungle in Indonesia, I probably would have thought that they were crazy. But there I was, counting down the last seconds of 2009 with loads of Indonesians and with my new English friends. Good times.

"...Cause I've got a golden ticket." When we entered the party everyone was granted a raffle ticket which would be called after the new year. Scott happened to have the golden ticket. His prize? Bags upon bags of noodles! We laughed for hours after that. Oh, man, bags of noodles. Ha. Only in Indonesia.

The next day Ian decided that he would ride his bicycle to Berastagi before traveling to Medan, where he would take a ferry to Malaysia. I really enjoyed my travels with Ian. I couldn't have asked for a better traveling partner. Hopefully I'll see him on the trail again.
As for me, my plan was to travel to Medan where I would attempt to CouchSurf again. After my bad experience in Bangkok, I thought I'd give it another shot and hope for the best. Don't let me down Medan!

Next stop: Medan, Indonesia

Monday, January 11, 2010

Pulau Weh, Indonesia

I was glad we had slept at the ferry terminal, because, like I’d suspected, people arrived early to assure themselves a seat on the boat. But after the boat quickly filled and was ready to depart, we continued to wait in the pier.

“What is the hold up, now?” I thought. “Don’t tell me our ferry is going to be cancelled again.” And the longer we waited in the pier, the worse the weather was getting.

“This is not looking good. This is NOT looking good,” repeated Jussi, a young Finnish guy who I’d just met that morning. He was traveling with his wife, Jenna, also from Finland , and were both anxiously awaiting to get to the island to do some diving.

“I don’t understand,” Jussi said, beginning to get restless, “The longer we wait here the worse the weather is just going to get. We need to leave now or it will be too late!” Soon after, the engine started. Everyone’s faces lighted up with joy as we all let out a huge sigh of relief. Apparently, to everyone’s dismay, we were all waiting due to our captain’s tardiness.

“Can you believe it, Jussi said in disbelief, “We were waiting for the captain. Unbelievable!”

It was such a relief when our high speed ferry made it out of the pier and entered the sea. The sea, however, got a bit rough as we approached the island. The staff of the ferry passed out plastic bags for anyone who needed to throw up. I thought for a second that I was getting sick but it quickly passed. Phew! Thankfully, the ferry ride only lasted 45 minutes.

After we made it to Pulau Weh, Ian rode his bicycle to Iboih beach where we would be staying. I split a taxi with Jussi and Jenna.

My goal upon arriving Iboih was to find Ian and me a bungalow. Iboih had loads of basic, rustic bungalows within the woods along the sea. I decided to wait for Ian before making any decisions, due to the…well…primitive bungalows that were available. I mean there were some nice places to stay the further down the path you went, such as Yulia’s, but the nicer bungalows were more expensive.

After nearly 2 hours, Ian, now shirtless and drenched in sweat, finally made it to Iboih. He was a little shaken up as he was ambushed by a gang of monkeys. He was upset with himself because he had forgotten some advice that was given to him about the monkeys prior to traveling here. He also forgot that he was carrying food which, undoubtedly, the aggressive little buggers smelled.

Ian and I lucked out and found a fantastic bungalow, located at Fatimah’s. It was built on stilts above the sea, so we had a gorgeous view of the crystal-clear water. Plus it had a hammock which I took full advantage of. Everyone told us how envious they were of us. The room set me back a whopping $2.50 per night. Yeah, buddy!

There was a certain intangible spirit felt here at Iboih. Many like-minded travelers flock here, creating a sense of community, which was comforting. A real chill out atmosphere, I spent my days here snorkeling, reading, and writing. I also began to play chess. I had to exercise my mind sort of way. The food was also good. Ian and I would eat every evening at Yulia’s; and every night I ordered the same meal: Gado Gado, a delicious vegetable dish, and 2 banana pancakes. Yualia’s was a nice place to eat and view the sunset.

[Frank Sinatra singing] “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…” Okay, as one can imagine, I didn’t experience a white Christmas. It was more like a blue Christmas, with blue skies and blue water. People really should wish for a blue Christmas. I highly recommend it. All kidding aside though, I did miss not being around my family on Christmas day. I spent the day like every other day at Pulau Weh: snorkeling, reading, and writing. There was an incident that occurred that frightened me a bit, however. Me, Ian, and some English girl that I’d met that morning decided to swim to Pulau Rubiah, an island across from Iboih that has pretty coral reefs. FYI: before swimming to Pulau Rubiah, make sure that the current isn’t too strong. While we were swimming across I began to get really bad cramps in my feet; and I couldn’t have gotten the cramps at a worse spot, as I was in the middle of the channel where it was the deepest and the current was at its strongest. I temporarily stopped the cramps by bending my feet backwards. By this point, the current had taken me pretty for off course, and I decided that it wasn’t worth swimming to Rubiah Island . I wasn’t going to take any chances, right dad? And I’m glad I didn’t because the cramps returned as I approached Iboih’s shores. I sliced my hands on the coral trying to swim back to shore, too. I was exhausted by the time I made it back to Iboih.

After nearly a week at Pulau Weh Ian and I decided to leave, as time was of the essence. Ian didn’t have many days left before his visa expired and I had a plane to catch—and we both wanted enough time to visit Bukit Lawang, and, possibly, Berastagi.

We decided we would get a room near the pier in order to catch the morning ferry the following day. But as Ian and I were about to leave, my motorbike driver said that I might be able to make the ferry that evening. So I told Ian, if I did happen to catch the ferry, I would meet up with him the following day in Banda Aceh so we could travel to Bukit Lawang together.

I made it to the pier just as the ferry was about to leave. The ferry was blowing its horn so I hurried, bought my ticket, and ran onto the boat. Phew! The sea was calm that evening so I made it back to Banda Aceh within 35 minutes. At the ferry terminal I split a taxi with a few people back to town. I decided I would sleep at the bus terminal again. As I was walking to the bus terminal I decided to take a break at a small outdoor café and watch a soccer game. I continued my journey back to the terminal at around midnight. After getting lost I hitched a ride by motorbike to the bus terminal. I must have thanked the man a million times as I somehow managed to wander off course. I offered him money but he wouldn’t take it.

The next day I would meet back up with Ian and board another long overnight bus ride to Bukit Lawang.

Next Stop: Bukit Lawang


Friday, January 8, 2010

Banda Aceh, Indonesia

It took a lot longer than expected to reach Bireuen from Takengon. It’s safe to say that however long the guide book says it will take to reach your destination, add a few hours. This applies in Indonesia , at least. Once Ian and I got off the bus we were instantly surrounded by men trying to get us to take the minivan-bus to Banda Aceh, which was expensive. We both thought that there had to be large buses that could take us to Banda Aceh which would be less expensive. Everyone was telling us that no such bus existed. We decided to regroup and think things out over some fried noodles at a local market—and I’m glad we did. It was probably the best fried noodles I had had up to that point in Indonesia . Afterwards, we decided, despite what everyone had been telling us, that we would search for a legit bus station. Needless to say, we found one. Our bus would take us to Banda Aceh for half the price, too. Nice.

After a long, long bus ride we finally made it to Banda Aceh; however, we made it to Aceh in the middle of the night and the bus station was located a few miles outside town. I’m beginning to believe that bus stations are purposely built miles outside of towns in order to create local jobs for taxi services. Instead of paying for a taxi ride to a hotel, then paying for a hotel room, then paying for another taxi ride to the ferry terminal, we opted to sleep at the bus station. We both felt that it was safe enough. Plus, it would save us a lot of money. So after searching around, we found a spot that would suffice for the night. I didn’t have a sleeping bag so Ian gave me his to sleep on, as he had a comfy mat that he would use.

The following morning, we decided that we would take the 9 a.m. ferry to Pulau Weh. I would take a taxi and Ian would ride his bicycle to the terminal. It’s a really a nice way for Ian to get around town and save money.

At the ferry terminal I began to see something that I hadn’t seen for many days—westerners. I hadn’t seen this many westerners since volunteering at the project in Padang. Upon arriving, however, I found out that due to the weather, there wouldn’t be any ferries leaving for Pulau Weh. I was told to try again the following morning. After waiting for Ian for over an hour I decided to head back to town and snatch a hotel, as other tourists would undoubtedly be doing the same. I found a relatively inexpensive hotel, Hotel Prapat, before searching for an internet café to email Ian my whereabouts. Luckily, Ian received my email and met up with me at the hotel.

We got up early the next morning and left for the ferry terminal. When we arrived people were being allowed to board the ferry. This was a good sign. However, about 30 minutes after boarding the ferry they announced that, again, due to the weather, the ferry wouldn’t be departing. Ugh!

Ian, who was quite annoyed with the situation, didn’t want to stay another night in Aceh and expressed to me his wishes to travel, possibly, down the west coast or to Medan. However, after some persuasion, I talked him into staying one more night. Once we were back in town we spent the day watching and playing chess, and, as I’ve mentioned in one of my earlier blogs, Indonesians are superb at chess. There were loads of people near our hotel who would play chess all day long. Ian attempted to play against one of the better chess players there. The guy he challenged was quite the character. He was a large, jolly Indonesian with a contagious laugh. He would play mind games with his opponents by talking trash and laughing loudly. He really could attract a crowd. Ian decided to challenge the man after watching him systematically break down his last opponent. Ian allowed his opponent's mind games to affect him, as he lost rather quickly. When Ian's opponent was winning, he'd sure let you know. It was a spectacle to watch, that's for sure. (Watch him below)

Ian and I would also went to see the new Tsunami Museum. In 2004 the Aceh province was devastated by the Boxing Day tsunami, which killed 174,000 people. And where we were, in the city of Banda Aceh, 61,000 people were killed. It’s hard to fathom the amount of lives lost on that tragic day. Some good did result from the 2004 tsunami, however. After years of regional armed conflict between the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) and the Indonesian government a peace accord was signed in Helsinki on August 15, 2005. As a result many NGOs were also given access to the closed province of Aceh, thus, allowing many of the relief organizations to aid thousands of Aceh victims.

Later I had an interesting conversation with an Indonesian man who spoke, quite surprisingly, good English. I was buying some snacks from his store when he inquired where I was from. Once I told him I was from America he gave the same response that ever Indonesian gives, “Ah, yes, America,” he said. “Barack Obama!”

“Yes, Barack Obama,” I responded.

“Obama,” he said, while pointing to his head, “is very intelligent, yes.”

It never fails, every time I tell someone I’m from America they yell, very enthusiastically, President Barack Obama’s name. It’s great to have a president in office that isn’t despised by the rest of the planet. Everyone reacts so positively when I tell them I’m an American. It’s nice not having to pose as a Canadian.

“I have to ask you,” he said, with a deep sense of curiosity written all over his face, “why do you come to Indonesia?”

“Why did I decide to visit Indonesia?” I said, buying time, thinking of an appropriate response.

“Yes, yes. Why did you come here? Not many Americans travel to Indonesia, you know.”

“Well...” I said, about to answer, just before he cut me off. “I find it funny that Americans are so afraid of me and my country.”

“Uh, huh,” I said, “Go on.” And he did.

“I watch all these American movies and everyone is so big and strong, fighting people. But then Americans are so afraid of me and the people of Indonesia.” I allowed him to speak freely, not interrupting.

“We are not Osama Bin Laden. He is one man; he does not represent the Muslim people. So, again, I ask you, why are Americans so afraid all the time?”

“You have made many valid points,” I said, “And I will try to give you the best explanation that I can, okay?”

“Yes, yes. Please, I want to know,” he said, anxiously awaiting a response.

So I told him, "Overall, Americans are pretty ignorant when it comes to geography. People are afraid of the unknown, no? And I’ll be honest; there are many countries that Americans are unfamiliar with. Is this entirely Americans fault? Not necessarily. I would argue that our media bares some of the blame, too. This brings me to my point. The American people don’t hear about Indonesia often. But when they do hear about your country, what do they see? They see terrorist attacks that have taken place in Bali and Jakarta, and they see natural disasters that have devastated your country, such as earthquakes and tsunamis. Furthermore, we also see tragic incidents where your ferries sink with many people drowning. So if this is only what the American people see or hear from our media about your country—terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and an archaic, malfunctioning transportation system—why would Americans want to visit a country like that? Are you following me?"

“Uh, huh. Uh, huh,” he mumbled softly, nodding his head.

“But that’s why I’m here,” I continued, “I want to see the country and decide for myself. And do you know what? I think the people are great here; I think the food is pretty good; and I think your country is beautiful.”

“Okay,” he responded, “I just like Americans. All Americans that I’ve met are nice, good people. Maybe if you tell them about our country they will come here and won’t be afraid.”

“I’ll spread the word,” I told him.

Earlier in the day, Ian and I opted again not to get a hotel and to sleep at the ferry terminal. And since I had been wasting so much money on rides to and from the ferry terminal, I decided I’d walk there. After I bought some snacks from a grocery store I ventured off for a long walk in the night. You would think it was illegal to walk in the streets of Banda Aceh. You are constantly harassed to get a ride with some form of taxi service.

After a few miles of walking, a nice man with his son pulled up beside me on a motorbike and offered me the cheapest ride anyone had offered. My backpack was getting pretty heavy at this point, as well. I couldn’t say no. I ended up really enjoying the man’s company for the short ride to the terminal. He even offered for me to stay at his house once I told him where I would be sleeping. But because the ferry hadn’t left in a few days there would be many, many people wanting to take the ferry; and I had to make sure I was there early enough to get a ticket.

When we made it to the terminal the gates were shut. My driver let out a sigh and said the terminal was closed. However, after he honked his horn, a few guards came out of the darkness behind the closed gates and onto the pavement under the streetlight, making themselves visible. The guards and my driver began laughing and conversing in Indonesian. The guards said ‘hello’ and gave me a thumbs up.

“No problem,” my driver said, as the guards began to open the gates, “These are my friends, they let you in.”

“Ah, thank you! Terima Kasih!” I said to the guards, returning the thumbs up.

Once inside, Ian was standing in front of the terminal next to his bike. For once, he made it to a destination before me. He told me that we would be able to sleep inside the boat. We boarded the ferry and found it empty of any westerners, with only a few Indonesians. Ian would roll out his mat and sleep outside on the deck. I would sleep on top of a row of chairs inside. And before I went to sleep, I literally climbed on top of the ferry, laid back, turned on my ipod, and enjoyed the nice breeze coming off the sea under the clear skies of Banda Aceh.

Next stop: Pulau Weh


Marc's first Tim Tam Slam in Australia

Tim Tam Slam from DaigleBros on Vimeo.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Takengon, Indonesia

The following morning the owner of Pak Mus Guesthouses walked me to the road and hailed a passing bus for me. The bus would only take me to Blangkejeren, where I'd have to transfer to Takengon. I was anxious to drive through this area in Sumatra, known as the Gayo Highlands. I had heard it was supposed to be extremely beautiful--and it was. The Gayo Highlands was extremely picturesque with mountainous scenery.

In the bus, I just sat back--well, as much as one can in an overcrowded bus--and enjoyed one panoramic view after another. I made it to Blangkerjeren in about 4 hours. I had to wait in its dusty bus terminal for an hour before boarding the next bus to Takengon. The ride from Blangkejeren to Takengon was the bus ride from hell. Two people in the minivan bus, the woman in front of me and the guy to the right of me, were throwing up throughout the entire ride to Takengon. That's right...the entire time! And for some reason, the woman who was sitting in front of me continued to sit in the middle of the row as she threw up. So every time she had to throw up, her husband--who had the window seat--would have to slide the window open and have her lunge and lean over him to barf. Nice. Sometimes, however, she would throw up in a plastic bag and toss it out the window. I would have hated to be the driver of the car tailing us.

It got worse.

The driver played a CD which was scratched and wouldn't play after the second song. Every time the CD would make it to track #3, it would skip. And every time the CD began to skip, the driver would repeat the first two songs. This went on for hours. Also, the driver would play the music ridiculously loud. I was beginning to go deaf, which, I guess, isn't so bad when you're surrounded with people vomitting all around you.

Just when I thought the ride couldn't get any did. The roads quickly got treacherous. I'm talking to the point where I was fearing for my life. The roads became narrower, as the turns were getting sharper. Plus, there were a lot of recent landslides still visibly present on the road. Despite this, our driver still felt the need for speed. They must get some sort of commission or bonus if they make it to their destination at certain times, regardless if the passengers survive. Literally, I got to the point where I thought that I might have to bail. If we were going to drive off the mountain I was going to be ready. I grabbed my bag and reached for the door handle but to find that there wasn't any door handle present, at least from the inside of the bus. So I had to slide the window open and reach around to grab the handle form the outside. Luckily, I didn't have to bail and made it to Takengon safely.

Takengon, the largest city in the Gayo Highlands, is beautifully surrounded by mountainous hills. It also resides next to a large lake, Danau Laut Tawar. Once in town, I made my way to the Gayo Hotel. It had cheap rooms with clean beds. However, the beds were definitely not made for someone 6 feet four inches in height. My feet would hang off the bed by at least a foot. There really isn't anything to do in Takengon, and is completely absent of any westerners. So the next morning I found an internet cafe and got caught up on some emails and blogs. Later I would walk and explore the town. There are some pretty areas in Takengon if you walk beyond the downtown vicinity. Ian would make it in town later that night. Exhausted from riding on his bicycle for 2 full days through the Gayo Highlands, he went to sleep early. The next morning we decided since there wasn't much else to do/see we would get a bus to Banda Aceh. Finding a bus to Banda Aceh was quite tricky. Apparently, there isn't any direct buses from Takengon to Banda Aceh. We had to purchase a bus ticket from Takengon to Bireuen; in Bireuen we would have to find a connecting bus to B. Aceh. But before we started another long bus journey we opted for a good old fashion shave. The barbers here use long, straight edge razors. When finished, they give you a nice neck and head massage. A shave in Indonesia will set you back approximately $1 USD.

Next Stop: Banda Aceh


Monday, January 4, 2010

Ketambe, Indonesia

I was able to hitch a ride on a motorbike to the edge of town. From there I caught a bus to the city of Pangururan, on the other side of the island of Samosir, where I would decide what direction I would go. I ended up deciding to travel to Ketambe, the main access point to Gunung Leuser National Park. According to my Indonesian Lonely Planet Guidebook, the park “is one of the world’s most important and biologically diverse conservation areas.” Though it is rare, there are chances to see even rhinoceros, tigers and elephants. Oh, my! But the main reason why I wanted to visit Ketambe was to see orangutans living freely in their natural habitat. I figured that I could make a day trip to Berastagi from Medan if I chose to do so, later.

No one spoke any English at the minivan-bus service where I purchased my ticket for Ketambe. So what I thought was a ticket to Ketambe turned out to be, in fact, a ticket to Kabanjahe, a town 20 minutes south of Berastagi. However, I didn’t realize this until I reached Kabanjahe and was being transferred to another bus that would send me to Kutacane, about 40 km south of Ketambe. Earlier in the day, I had the feeling I wasn’t heading in the right direction. I asked people many times along the way, during the bus ride and pit stops in different towns, but I couldn’t find anyone who could read a map. So when I was dropped off in Kabanjahe, I literally had no idea where I was. And this city was a real dump. It was a chaotic, dirty town with loads of loud motorbikes; rusty, decrepit buildings; many street stalls; and overcrowded trucks and buses with people standing on top of the roofs. Oh, I also saw the largest pig I’ve ever seen in my life. I mean this sucker was huge. It was being transported on the bed of a pickup truck. Fortunately, a young guy, probably in his early 20s, approached me and directed me to the proper bus that would take me to Kutacane. I would have to spend the night in Kutacane and travel to Ketambe the following morning.

The roads from Kabanjahe to Kutacane were the worst roads I have experienced in Sumatra . I sat in the front seat on the passenger side of the minivan-bus and was happy that there wasn’t a window present, because if there was, my head probably would have bashed it out due to all the swaying and rocking back and forth. The pot holes were just simply enormous. Sometimes half the road would be completely washed out.

After about 15 hours on the road, I made it to Kutacane at 1 a.m. I stayed at the Marran Hotel which was a bit of a dump. My room had two twin beds that were really dirty. It looked like the sheets hadn’t been washed in a few weeks, as there were stains, a few dead insects, and some ants crawling around. Yuck. I don’t understand why it is so difficult to wash the sheets. After wiping off the bed, I covered myself in my clothes and slept on top of the sheets. And just as I was beginning to get a bit of shut-eye, the mosque across the street began blaring its call to prayer into my room. Ahhh!

I woke up early the next morning and made my way to the main road. From there, I began walking in the direction toward Ketambe bound to find a bus. As I walked through the streets of Kutacane, people would smile and wave. And of course, there was the usual ‘Hello, Mister!’ from every other person. I probably walked for about 25 minutes before getting a cheap ride to Ketambe. Finally, Ketambe.

I had the driver drop me off at Pak Mus Guesthouses. This was a lovely establishment run by an extremely nice family. The guesthouses were all well maintained with a pretty landscape, e.g., pretty flowers, green grass and trees. The meals here were quite good, as well. Though there wasn’t much of a variety of food to choose from, they had the three essentials: noodles, fried rice, and, of course, banana pancake. Yummy.

The first day, the owner—sorry, I forgot his name—took me around on the back of his motorbike to a bunch of scenic areas. At some locations he would turn off his motorbike and we would quietly coast along the jungle, pointing out the variety of monkeys in the trees. It was quite peaceful coasting along the jungle as we had a nice cool breeze, were listening to the monkeys singing in the trees, and had the sound of the river roaring below us. Ah, welcome to the jungle. The next day, he took me around on his motorbike again. His goal was to find some orangutans. We went on some hikes where they can sometimes be found. No luck. Even though I didn’t see any orangutans I still enjoyed my hikes, views, and sights of other wildlife. When we got back to the guesthouse he had his son take me to see a big waterfall, located about 800 meters behind his place. After we made it to the waterfall, we chilled out for a bit soaking in the view--literally. It was quite rewarding to see a large waterfall after failing to see one at Lake Toba . I really wanted to take a full day hike to the hot springs, but because there wouldn’t be anyone else to share the cost, I felt it was too expensive. Thus, I felt it was time to travel on. I was hoping Ian and I would meet me here. However, after two full days and Ian no where in sight, I told the owner that I would be leaving the following morning. Later that evening, however, while eating dinner, I noticed someone riding a bicycle past the guesthouse. I was Ian!

"Ian, Ian!" I shouted, as I sprinted up the road chasing him.

"Ian!" I continued to shout. I was losing ground. I lost sight of him as he went over the hill. Then a motorbike with 3 kids passed me.

"Hey, Hey! Come back!" I yelled, gasping for air while waiving for them to stop. Once they stopped, I quickly caught up to them and practically forced two of them off the motorbike and jumped on.

"Go!" I said loudly, pointing up the road. And when we made it over the hill, Ian was surprisingly just one house away.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," I told the boy, "Stop right here." The boy quickly stopped and I hopped off.

"Thank you, thank you. Terima Kasih," I said to the boy. He smiled and turned around to pick up his comrades.

After two and a half days Ian made it to Ketambe. I brought him to my guesthouse and we split the room, now only costing me $2.50 per night. Over dinner, we talked about our travels from Lake Toba to Ketambe.

Since Ian made it, I stayed another night and trekked to the hot springs the following morning. The owner, Ian and I trekked 4 hours through the jungle before reaching the hot springs. But about 400 meters before we reached the hot springs, we had to cross the river. Crossing the river wasn’t an easy task, either. The river was pretty deep, as it reached nearly my hips. And the current was quite strong as well. It also didn’t help that there were many rocks in the river which we had to cross barefoot. The owner crossed the river with ease, of course. No problem. I knew it wasn’t going to be as easy for me, so I threw my belongings over to the other side before crossing. It was a bit disconcerting as I approached the middle of the river. I almost fell over about 3 times before the owner came over and gave me a hand. Once across, I began to smell the scent of the sulfur from the hot springs. It wasn’t but another five minutes before we made it. The site of the hot springs was simply gorgeous. The river was clear and we were surrounded by lush green jungle. We would all find a shallow pool area within the river and sit back. It felt as if I was sitting in a jacuzzi. Real nice. I soaked up the splendid springs and scenery for about 2 hours. The atmosphere was quite conducive for meditation, which I did. I meditated about my life and all the events that have occurred within it for the past 2 years, and the decisions that I’ve made that has led me to this juncture in my life. But most importantly I began to focus on the present, the now. I was sitting in a natural host spring in the middle of a gorgeous jungle. This was the life.

When we made it back to our guesthouse another tourist had just arrived, a 58 year old original American hippie. He resembled Willie Nelson, with a bandana/Mexican style t-shirt, salt and pepper colored hair and beard, and a pony tail. He probably smoked as much as Willie Nelson, too. And, man, did this guy have some stories about his travels. He said he was currently living in Alaska, so the topic of bears inevitably was brought up. He told us a few stories where he nearly got caught by a bear. Ian mentioned how he had heard how you’re not supposed to run away from bears, and was wondering, if there was any truth to that. To which the Alaskan responded,

"Well, people say don’t run from the bear. I, personally, say don’t get caught by the bear."

Then I brought up how I’ve heard—from my mother, actually, who recently traveled Alaska for 5 weeks—that wearing bells works as a deterrent.

"If you stumble across a pile of crap, do you know how you can tell its bear shit or not?" the hippie asked.

"No," I responded.

"It’s the shit with bells in it."

Duly noted.

Ian and I decided that we would leave the following morning. Our plan was to travel north to Banda Aceh. However, since Ian wanted to bicycle through the Gayo Highlands we planned on meeting in Takegnon. There, we would spend a day or two before taking a bus to Banda Aceh.

Even though I didn’t get to see any orangutans in the Gunung Leuser National Park, I will get the opportunity again when I visit Bukit Lawang.

Next stop: Takegnon


Sunday, January 3, 2010

Lake Toba, Indonesia

After Marc and I sadly parted ways, I got a ride to the bus station by motorbike from one of the locals, Al, who worked at Café Bedual. At the bus station, Al was very kind as he gave me helpful tips as to how to keep my valuables, as well as myself, safe. It was going to be a long, arduous overnight bus ride to Lake Toba . Fortunately, the bus ended up being quite nice. Any bus where I can comfortably fit both of my legs in front of me is a nice one, I have to say. After a pit stop, I noticed a westerner getting out of our bus who was wearing a Hands On Disaster Response t-shirt. I quickly got off the bus and approached him to introduce myself. His name was Ian, from Bath , England . He had recently volunteered with HODR for 3 weeks and left, apparently, right when Marc and I arrived. Ian owns a small business in England which allows him to travel for 3-4 months every year. Nice.

The bus ride to Lake Toba took nearly 17 hours. The Trans-Sumatran Highway didn’t quite live up to its name. It definitely wasn’t a “highway” by American standards or by any other industrialized nation, for that matter. The first half of the trip was nothing but sharp turns through the mountains over crater-sized pot holes. There was a lot of swaying back and forth and bumps that would send my bum airborne. Not very pleasant. That said, the ride was extremely scenic. This island of Sumatra is very beautiful. This was a reason why I wanted to travel it overland. One really gets to see a country when traveling overland rather than by air.

Just before we made it to Parapat, where we would take a ferry to the island of Samosir, our bus decided to take another pit stop. Not good timing, especially since I had been traveling for the past 17 hours. I just wanted to get there! Once the bus was finally ready to leave, however, the engine wouldn’t start.

"You got be kidding me," I thought, as we were only a few miles from the ferry.

"I reckon I’ll ride my bicycle down," Ian said, with his English accent. "It doesn’t appear as if the bus is going to start anytime soon."

Ian enjoys bicycling when he travels. He’s been bicycling since he was 24 years old. Now 40, he has bicycled through many countries such as Indonesia, Nepal, Oman, a few European countries, and all over Central America. In fact, he has even written a guide book on Central America for bicyclists.

Just after he assembled his bicycle together the bus started. I told him I would wait for him at the bottom of the hill in town. Once Ian arrived I caught a ride with a local taxi to take me to the ferry; Ian would follow me on his bike. Once I made it to the ferry terminal, I noticed that Ian wasn’t anywhere to be found. I waited for about 20 minutes before boarding the boat. When the ferry dropped me off on Samosir Island, Ian was there awaiting me. Somehow he managed to get there before me. We began looking for rooms and were quickly persuaded by the owner of Tabo Cottages to get a room there. She gave us a discount and told us that there would be a free buffet breakfast for 2 hours every morning. A free buffet breakfast for 2 hours sounded great to me. Sold! So Ian and I shared a room together there.

There really isn’t too much to do on Lake Toba except to swim, relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Lake Toba is Southeast Asia’s largest lake. A giant volcano used to inhabit this area before collapsing in on itself after an eruption 100,000 years ago. Lake Toba surrounds the huge volcanic island of Samosir, which is nearly the size of Singapore . Here, the Toba Bataks are predominately Christians who were converted by European missionaries. It was strange to see so many churches and crosses instead of Mosques. I must say, I did enjoy not being awakened every morning by the Mosques calling people to prayer; that can be quite annoying. Even though the Bataks are Christian, they still practice or hold on to their traditional, animist beliefs. This can be found in their architecture, as well. The Batak houses are built on stilts and have real sharp, pointy roofs which I read are to resemble buffalo horns. Also, the houses have a few levels, one of which, is supposed to be dedicated to their ancestors. I couldn’t figure out if the Batak people actually believe that their ancestor’s souls reside there, or, if it is mainly just a shrine, sort of speak. In any case, the architecture is really neat.

The next morning, Ian and I made sure to arrive early for our buffet breakfast. Mmmm…mmm! And was it good. We were downing plate after plate. No shame. Ian, actually, was eating almost as much as I was which is pretty hard to do. Just ask my brother, Marc. After about an hour, when we both were beginning to feel a bit full, we thought we would have a little intermission with a few games of ping pong. Oh, yes, they had a ping pong table. I loved this place. We played just long enough to get our appetite back, then back for seconds we went. We literally ate every morning for the full two hours it was served.

From my hotel I could see a huge, pretty waterfall in the distance. Determined to trek my way to it, I asked a hotel employee for a map; however, the map I was given was not too detailed, as it was a copy of a handwritten sketch of the local area. It probably took me 45 minutes to walk a half mile outside the town of Tuk Tuk due to the local people stopping me to chat or because of the school children wanting to take my picture and practice their English. I took the longer, scenic route to get to the main road, which led me through some hilly farmland. On top of the hill were gorgeous views of the lake and the eastern coast of the island. Once I made it to the main road, I was directed to walk down a rocky path off the road that would lead me to the waterfall. This path led me to the bottom of the mountains through some farmland where I came across another small road which connected the adjacent villages. My map wasn’t too helpful at this point, so I was forced to ask some children to direct me to the trail to the waterfall.

As I was looking for the trail two dogs came running out from underneath a car, nearly biting me, and chased me up the road. After thanking the Lord for my life, and for not soiling my pants, I continued searching. I soon crossed paths with a woman who was balancing some container on top of her head, and asked her where I could find the trail to the waterfall. She pointed back to the direction I just had come from, where I was nearly mauled by the two dogs.

"The waterfall is that way?" I said, pointing to the direction where my life nearly ended.

"Are you sure?"

She nodded her head and quickly walked off. I’m sure she didn’t feel like standing around for too long with a huge, heavy container on top of her head.

"Great!" I yelled, losing my cool for a second. After which, I saw a couple heads pop up in the distant rice fields starring at me with bewildered looks on their faces. Going back where I had just came from was out of the question, so I decided to look for the main road. After walking through some beautiful rural farmland and small neighborhoods, I found my back to the main road. Still determined to see the waterfall, I looped around and tried again—to no avail. This time it wasn’t two dogs that prevented me from finding the trail. Nope. That would have been too easy, right? This time it was a water buffalo, which stood between me and the road I wanted to continue walking. As I approached the beast, I noticed it was looking directly at me while it was eating some food, "Chomp, chomp, chomp…..chomp……….chomp…………..chomp……………..Gulp!"

The beast and I stood motionless while starring into each others eyes. The main theme from Clint Eastwood’s movie The Good, The Bad & The Ugly came to mind: ( Thankfully I noticed that it was tied to a large post, and as I began to walk around the buffalo, it bellowed a small grunt and took a step towards me. I stopped and took another look at the post that it was tied to, and I noticed that it had about 25 feet of slack left.

"Oh, crap," I thought, and began to slowly walk backwards, never taking my eyes off of it.

"Eh. Maybe it’s not such a good idea to see the waterfall," I said to myself, as I continued to slowly walk backwards until I knew there wasn’t enough slack for the buffalo to reach me. I guess it wasn’t meant to be.

Back in town Ian and I found this lovely restaurant with a hidden patio with an amazing view of the lake. Plus, it had a continuous steady breeze which kept away the mosquitoes. Ian, who enjoys playing chess, managed to get a couple games in with the owner of the restaurant. Ian never did win a game against the owner, or any other local Indonesia for that matter, while in Lake Toba . He explained to me how Indonesians are really good at chess and play it all the time. Apparently, they were taught by the Dutch when they were here.

One night Ian and I walked around the entire town of Tuk Tuk and found it to be quite eerie, as there weren’t any tourists. It was strange to walk around and see every hotel, restaurant, and shop open for business but completely absent of tourists. Seriously, I mean no one. It appeared that Tuk Tuk may have used to attract many, many tourists but due to whatever reason—earthquakes, intra-country violence, visa hassles, a Muslim country, etc, etc—it’s a ghost town now. This of course was great for me, but terrible for the local economy. I did happen to meet a lovely English couple, James and Claire, back at our hotel. Due to the economy in England , they decided to travel around the world. They both shared many stories with me. And as I’ve said before, I love listening to other peoples travels. They also gave me some advice about Bukit Lawang, where I hopefully will travel to soon.

Ian and I debated what direction we would travel next. He eventually decided he would bicycle his way around Samosir to Sidikalang, then straight up to Ketambe. I was debating to either take that route or to travel to Berastagi, then make my way over to Ketambe and meet him. Decisions, decisions. I decided I would make my decision at the bus station the following day. I love this aspect of traveling—to have that time and freedom to move freely in any direction I want.


Next stop: ???